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Rattle and Hum

New York
Carnegie Hall
11/14/2003 -  
Heiner Goebbels: Aus einem Tagebuch
Jean Sibelius: Symphony # 7
Franz Schubert: Symphony # 9

Berlin Philharmonic
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

I like Simon Rattle a lot. He has provided some of the best concerts in this part of the world for the past few seasons as guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. By all electronic accounts, he elevated the City of Birmingham Symphony to an important ensemble on the world stage. His intense preparation and obvious enthusiasm can result in exciting and very moving evenings on a somewhat regular basis, even when that enthusiasm spills over into rather self-indulgent platform behavior. But I was not an immediate signatory to the decision to place arguably the finest instrumental assemblage on the planet under his wing. Unlike Chailly at the Gewandhaus or Janssons at the Concertgebouw, the chemistry of Sir Simon’s penchant for a gritty and gutsy sound and the Berlin Philharmonic’s glossily polished sonic veneer doesn’t seem to be an ideal formula for excellence. Like it or not, this orchestra was smoothed to a jeweler’s perfection under the aristocratic Claudio Abbado; Simon Rattle may be a bit too naturalistic for them. Time has now come to tell us all in New York what is the early betting line on the nuptials’ prospects for lengthy survival.

At Carnegie Hall the opportunity presented itself for at least a preliminary evaluation. I have become extremely skeptical of employing recorded performances as a basis for judgment and the initial foray of the new Berlin maestro is a fine object lesson. Rushed into release to promote the marriage, the CD of the premiere “live” reading of the Mahler 5 was quickly revealed to be a pastiche of studio retakes, a bandaged mummy only hinting at the recently deceased auditory experience. In today’s cut and paste society, it is questionable as to who’s Mahler are we actually hearing, the orchestra’s, the conductor’s, or the recording engineer’s?

After a nugacity whose only point of interest was that the German composer’s parents didn’t change their surname after the war, Sir Simon dug into perhaps the finest symphony of the previous century. He may, however, have dug a little too deeply in some wrong places, for the net effect of his efforts seemed to be a severing of important connections, a destruction of the emotional thread of the piece. What was immediately apparent (the Goebbels had had no strings but basses) was that this was not your father’s (in fact, not even your older brother’s) Berlin Philharmonic. The sound was much rougher, the silver a bit tarnished, the many new players younger and decidedly less Teutonic. All of this might have translated into superb Sibelius, except that the individual phrases, albeit very well played, were too disjointed to ever congeal into a powerful whole, the fabulously eloquent closing chord too quickly silenced. Mr. Rattle had an off night: he forgot his score and had to go back into the wings to retrieve it (except that, in union-dominated New York, he had to watch as a stagehand actually carried the little devil and placed it on his music stand for him) and, during the Schubert to come, turned around rather irritated at one point and asked the audience to lower their hearing aids. Perhaps this uncomfortableness helps to explain the fact that he never found the center of the Sibelius, but, the appearance of the valse triste chords near the end only signaled that this life had been episodic but not rhapsodic.

What followed was an immaculate reading of the ”Great C Major”. The articulation of the ensemble is still exceptional, the discipline remarkable. The lines were so clean that Rattle could luxuriate in the ability to reveal inner voices, most notably in the second violins and violas. But this performance was positively sanitary, mannered to a fault, bloodless, lacking in rhythmic flow. The style can only be described as, well, English. To drain such a spirited work of its essence and élan seemed puzzling; perhaps Maestro has fallen into the Norrington camp and is bringing one of the world’s best orchestras with him. Here the old opulent sonority was but a distant memory; phrases were clipped and curled like the hair of a show poodle. Polite and fussy, the conductor never let his musicians free to express the vitality of Schubert, the very quality that distinguishes him from his Classical (with a big “c”) forebears. For example, Rattle kept his trombones at a whisper, fortuitous in that they did not disturb several of the patrons who had, by this time, drifted off. This reviewer kept thinking that the next movement will be different, a reward for our patient good deportment free of Romantic fantasy, but, alas, the Scherzo was also fine and proper, the finale simply declarative. The famous reprise of that amazingly infectious and rambunctious theme should come in triumph and joy; here, like the Berlin Philharmonic itself, it simply came and went.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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